Will Younger Workers Be Allowed to Do More Hazardous Jobs?
The Labor Department wants to loosen protections that prevent teenagers from working longer hours at hazardous workplaces by relaxing some long-held Hazardous Occupations Orders (HO). And even though it touts this new initiative as offering new jobs to younger people, some Democratic members of Congress are loudly questioning why the Labor Department wants to expand the number of dangerous jobs that can be performed by 16- and 17-year-olds.
In a letter written on May 23 of this year to Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, questioned the proposed rule change outlined in the Department’s Spring 2018 regulatory agenda. In effect, some view this rule change as an attempt to gradually erode our country’s child labor laws, many of which are over 100 years old.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits 16- and 17-year-old workers from performing certain hazardous jobs outside of the agricultural industry. But the department provides limited exemptions for apprentices and student learners working “under certain conditions.”
The problem many see with this surprising turn of events is the use of the term “apprentice” – which calls for direct supervision of teenage workers in dangerous jobs. The rule change would eliminate this required supervision. So your teenager who has a summer or temporary job that would allow him or her to operate a meat slicer or a mini grinder or a trash compactor the size of an 18-wheeler is – after minimal training – on his own … so “good luck and be careful.”
In his letter, Ellison noted that in the current rules, 17 Hazardous Occupations Orders restrict younger workers in jobs like coal mining or fighting forest fires. And the congressman noted that due to those laws, teenage work-related deaths dropped to 27 a year in 2015 and 2016, from 72.5 a year in 1999 and 2000.
“Rolling back these regulations could jeopardize the safety of America’s youth and lead to an increase in the rate of workplace injuries, or even death, for underage workers,” Ellison wrote.
He concluded his letter by posing a number of questions to Acosta, requesting a response by June 6. As of this writing, the Secretary of Labor has yet to reply.
Former Wage and Hour Division official Michael Hancock also takes issue with the proposed modifications to FLSA. “When you find 16-year-olds running [hazardous machinery without supervision], we know kids are severely injured in those circumstances; which is why the laws exist in the first place.”
And though the new edict falls in line with the President’s desire to “streamline government,” former Obama administration adviser Eric Seleznow observes that the current apprenticeship program is a safety measure that benefits teenage workers by keeping them safe. Seleznow oversaw the Obama-era expansion of the apprenticeship program, but purposefully added the safety and supervisory measures in order to protect young people from occupational hazards.
“I hate to use the word hazardous,” Seleznow says, “because 18-year-olds are allowed to do it [hazardous work without supervision], while a 17-and-a-half-year old is not. But at least an apprenticeship offers that close supervision on-the-job, which can help reduce the chances of it being hazardous.”
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